Bud Foster has become a household name in Ohio over the past year.
After surprising the Buckeyes at home with an aggressive defensive game plan that gave the eventual national champions their only loss the season, the Hokies' defensive coordinator has become center of attention leading up to the rematch this Monday night in Blacksburg, Va. Although nearly every opponent that followed on Ohio State's schedule tried to use piece of Foster's '46-Bear' defense, only his troops were able to come away with a victory.
Many on this site and on countless others have looked at this scheme at great detail, wondering what about a philosophy whose time in the sun came 30 years ago could be so successful today. The answers have ranged from the Bear's novelty, to Foster's ability to coach defensive backs, to OSU's inexperience on offense, to just plain luck. In reality, the Buckeyes' loss was probably a deadly cocktail of all those answers, making it hard to pinpoint just how, exactly, Foster will try to replicate that formula.
Heading into their matchup with the Buckeyes last September, Foster made a gamble on the fact that although his opponent was replacing starters at quarterback, running back, and four spots on the offensive line, their offensive system would remain virtually the same as their scarlet and gray predecessors. With Carlos Hyde running behind a stout line, OSU gutted defenses on inside runs in 2012 and 2013, so Foster set out to ensure that his unit wouldn't see the same fate.
As both teams hit the field in Ohio Stadium, the Hokies lined up in a 'Bear' front, aligning up a defensive lineman directly across from both guards and the center. Though the Buckeyes appeared to have enough men to block this front, thats misses the point of the scheme.
With five total defenders on the line to take on five offensive linemen, the Virginia Tech middle linebacker was left completely unblocked all night, and allowed to meet OSU runners at the line of scrimmage. The look proved so successful early that Buckeye running back Ezekiel Elliott would only see eight carries for a season-low 32 yards rushing.
In response, the Buckeyes began involving quarterback J.T. Barrett in the run game with options and designed rushes, yet still found little room to operate. Not only had Foster covered up the interior of the line, but he called for straight, man-to-man defense in the secondary. Such coverage is rarely seen on early downs in the NFL, and almost never seen at all at the college level, given the burden placed on the defensive backs against high-powered passing attacks.
Now, instead of covering a deep zone, the safeties were lined up near the line, like additional linebackers, and there to help against any quarterback run action. With 11 players on each side, there would always be one unblocked defender left to take on the ball-carrier, which resulted in few big gains for Barrett.
With so many ineffective first and second downs, the OSU offense was playing uphill, consistently facing third-and-long situations, and allowing Foster to open up the playbook to countless zone blitzes. As if Barrett and his line hadn't faced enough confusion on the previous two plays, the Hokies began sending rushers from every direction, and holding the offense to a season low 25% conversion rate on third downs.
After Foster's gamble initially paid off, the Buckeyes were forced to build in adjustments to combat the 'Bear' front that would continue to show up week after week. The simplest such wrinkle involved keeping the base, tight zone play that Meyer and his staff had called countless times over the past few years, but now with a literal twist.
Now the play-side tackle pulled and led the runner through the hole, splitting the 'A' gap between the guard and center, and sealing off the middle linebacker. To account for the end man normally blocked by that tackle, the quarterback would fake an option-keeper, holding the defender in place in case of a run around his edge.
Many of these wrinkles succeeded because while the Buckeyes' later opponents ran a 'Bear' front, they didn't also include the man coverage that allowed the safeties to roam free near the line. The inclusion of the 'free hitter' in the Hokie defense, along with the lack of adjustments in the OSU offense appeared to be the difference in the only blemish on a 14-1 season.
But that doesn't mean the hosts in Blacksburg are likely to see the exact same results this year. Meyer's offense developed a number of counters to the 'Cover-0' man defense, notably including the running back in the passing game immediately in the week following the loss.
Concepts like the 'flare' screen do an excellent job attacking man coverage, as the Buckeyes will force a linebacker to tackle Elliott, Curtis Samuel, or one many dangerous runners in the open field. Instead of playing the game within the confines of the metaphorical 'phone booth' near the line of scrimmage, OSU began attacking the perimeter of the defense, a clear weak point of the defense's philosophy.
Additionally, Ohio State will look to loosen up the defense by hitting the 'quick' game, with short passes like slants, hitches, and other short routes that get the ball outside immediately. Although the receiving corps is coping with the suspensions of starters Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith, veteran Michael Thomas will still be seeing the field, and his skill set is perfect for these types of routes. In fact, Thomas made one of the few big plays of the night for OSU in the previous matchup, breaking the outside of two slant routes for a big touchdown.
Attacking the perimeter must be the focus of OSU's game plan, as there are too many natural play-makers on the roster to not take advantage of one-on-one situations. Another way to do this could be through packaged plays, attaching a run play that might beat the 'Bear' front with a screen to the outside.
Though it came against a different defensive look, Meyer called for such combinations against Oregon in the CFB Championship, asking the QB to read the outside linebacker. Against the Hokies' aggressive look, that option man could be the free safety, either giving OSU the numbers advantage in the run game or forcing a defensive back to get through blockers and make a play in the open field.
If the Buckeyes connect early on some of these outside throws, expect the Hokies to retreat to their 'Cover 1' package, which they showed multiple times during their trip to the Horseshoe in longer yardage situations, as well as against other opponents last fall. The concept is still man-to-man defense, but instead of bringing the free safety down near the line of scrimmage to help deal with QB runs, he drops into a deep, middle zone to help with any deep passes.
This positioning can make a world of difference as far as the Buckeye running game is concerned. Luckily for fans of the Scarlet and Gray, this is not the same unit that took the field last September. Regardless of which QB takes the field on Monday night, not only will they be much more seasoned than the one that took the field last year, but their surrounding cast will be as well, making these adjustments much easier to execute.
But such a point underlies the entire offensive story for the Buckeyes in this game. Although Foster found an edge last year, he knows he caught lightning in a bottle, especially considering the level at which the OSU offense operated later in the year. But just because Elliott, Thomas, and the rest of the unit performed well 9 months ago doesn't mean they'll pick right up where they left off.
Opening the season is hard enough regardless of location, and on the road in a hostile environment isn't going to make it any easier. But if the visitors are able to execute early, they should have more than enough talent to wear out their hosts.
Author's note: While 11W is always keeping an eye out for new, talented contributors to add to the team, we're looking for someone to help out with scheme pieces like this one. If you're interested, please raise your hands in the comments section below.